In his latest book, “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?” Charles Barkley takes a look at racism in America. As he travels the country, nothing is sacred — his topics range from interracial love to affirmative action, real estate, and racial stereotypes. Barkley was invited on the “Today” show to discuss the book. Here's an excerpt, in which he talks with golfing legend Tiger Woods.
Since Muhammad Ali, probably no professional athlete has inspired more worldwide talk than Tiger Woods. That’s because nobody in professional golf has ever looked like Tiger Woods. Sure, there have been people with dark skin who have had an impact on professional golf, from Charlie Sifford to Lee Elder to Jim Thorpe, all of whom are Americans of African descent, to Vijay Singh, who is Fijian. But Wood’s ethnicity — his dad is African American and his mom is Thai — his dominance of the game at the turn of the twenty-first century, and his appeal to children touched off a golf revolution. Never had the game, invented in Europe and dominated by white men for four hundred years, grabbed the attention of so many blacks, Asians, women, children, and young adults as when Tiger Woods started a roll that would see him win all four major championships by his twenty-fifth year.
If Tiger Woods was a WASP and fourth-generation country club kid from New England, he would be a golf phenomenon. But as a black and Asian kid from Southern California who has been called “nigger” on numerous occasions as a child and as a teenager by people who didn’t think he belonged on a golf course, he is a global phenomenon. People who operate under the impression that Tiger just sailed through life with no ugly confrontations will be shocked to learn that he suffered an ugly racial assault his very first day of school. But despite the odds, the “next Michael Jordan” from a marketing standpoint isn’t another basketball player; it’s Tiger Woods, who is probably the most recognizable athlete in the world, probably the richest, and in some ways the least known.
That tug-of-war has led to criticism of Tiger, that he should talk more about what race he feels he is, that he should identify with his African roots here in the United States, that he is wrong to shy away from issues of race, and the easy one that most people in public life face: that he hasn’t done enough to help his race.
Having known Tiger since he came out of Stanford, I know that stuff is just a bunch of junk. I’ve told him dozens of times that he should talk about how he feels on the subject and damn the consequences. I’ve also teased him, when we talk about his multiracial background, that we know people see him as black because Thai people don’t get as much hate mail as he does. Black people get that kind of volume of hate mail in America, not Thai people.
But the important thing for me was to hear Tiger talk about his own racial experiences, most of which he has not shared publicly until now. And with Tiger, you have to start at the beginning, with his parents.
“Being raised under two different cultures gives my life a dichotomy that I think made me more well rounded earlier. And then there was the fact that I was playing a sport in which I didn’t ever really play with peers. Golf traditionally is an older gentleman’s sport. So as a kid I was always around people who had been in the workforce for twenty, thirty, forty years. There was a point in time — I was probably about thirteen, fourteen years old — when I told Dad, ‘I’m more comfortable hanging out with you guys than I am with my peers.’ But that’s the environment I was raised in, so I was forced to grow up faster. You couldn’t act petulant at a young age being around men who were very influential in what they did.”
Everyone has tried to define what they think Tiger ought to consider himself. Because we all are asked at such an early age to disclose our “race” on applications ranging from driver’s licenses to a form you fill out to give blood, people have to come to grips with choosing. I’ve told the story about my daughter asking me, “Dad, am I black or white?” and telling her that the answer was determined a long time ago in this country. Though her mom is white, her dad is black, so she’s seen as black in America, and would have been three hundred years ago, when the child of a slave and slave owner was legally black. Hell, if that person married a white person and had a child, their child would have been legally black as well.
But this isn’t three hundred years ago. There are so many kids of so many races who cannot be easily described in a single box on an application. And Tiger Woods is one of those people who just will not be pushed into an overly simplistic description of who he is.
“I was talking about this not too long ago with some kids. They asked me, ‘What was it like growing up?’ I said, ‘It was great. But there were times when I wasn’t allowed to play golf.’ At the Navy golf course where I grew up playing, there’s an age limit — at military golf courses it was ten and over. But for some reason all the white kids were allowed to play who were ten and under, though I wasn’t. I had people who were older — and I don’t know if they were servicemen or retired or active or guests ... I don’t know who they were — use the N word with me numerous times. I was there pitching, just pitching at a little chipping green. And they wanted to pitch, so they would yell at me and I’d have to go to the putting green. So I’d go to the putting green and I’d get yelled at over on the putting green. I’d go back to the chipping green, then get yelled at on the chipping green. These are things that obviously hardened me a little bit and made me realize that golf was not like basketball or football at the time. It was different, under different rules. Even traveling the country as a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go to certain pro shops or certain clubhouses to change shoes where all the other kids were allowed to.
“Being black is just looked at differently. And in this country I’m looked at as being black. When I go to Thailand, I’m considered Thai. It’s very interesting. And when I go to Japan, I’m considered Asian. I don’t know why it is, but it just is.
"It shouldn’t be about that but it is, unfortunately, because even as the world is becoming more global and more interconnected through all the different information streams, we’re still very separate and distinct. People are trying to maintain their cultural heritage, even though we, in America, are probably the biggest melting pot of anyplace in the world. Now, being married to a Swede, it’s interesting to see how excited she is when she’s able to talk to a Swede. Or when my caddie Stevie, being from New Zealand, is able to talk to someone from New Zealand. I guess because I have more than one heritage I really don’t feel that. The closest thing I have as a sense of that kind of connection is when I’m overseas and I run into someone who is speaking English.”
But for Tiger, the sense that he was somehow different came very early.
“I became aware of my racial identity on my first day of school, on my first day of kindergarten. A group of sixth graders tied me to a tree, spray-painted the word ‘nigger’ on me, and threw rocks at me. That was my first day of school. And the teacher really didn’t do much of anything. I used to live across the street from school and kind of down the way a little bit. The teacher said, ‘Okay, just go home.’ So I had to outrun all these kids going home, which I was able to do. It was certainly an eye-opening experience, you know, being five years old. We were the only minority family in all of Cypress, California.
“When my parents moved in, before I was born, they used to have these oranges come through the window all the time. And it could have not been racially initiated or it could have been. We don’t know. But it was very interesting, though people don’t necessarily know it, that I grew up in the 1980s and still had incidents. I had a racial incident even in the 1990s at my home course where I grew up, the Navy golf course. And right before the 1994 U.S. Amateur, I was eighteen years old, I was out practicing, just hitting pitch shots and some guy just yelled over the fence and used the N word numerous times at me. That’s in 1994.”
It’s remarkable to me that Tiger has remained pretty much without bitterness. His life is nothing if not diverse. His wife is Swedish. His caddie is from New Zealand. His mom is Thai, and his dad is black and American. You don’t see that every day, do you? Then again, maybe if we look closer, increasingly this is what we will be seeing as walls and barriers come down. Folks accustomed to being only with people who look like them may not want to see it, but it’s there more and more if you just look around when you travel. Maybe part of it is that so many people don’t have the means or opportunity to leave their communities and don’t know what’s going on outside their segregated situations. Anyway, we know Tiger knows exactly who he is and has an appreciation for where he comes from because of some ugly lessons. Still, he seems not to carry that baggage around.
“My dad’s mom died when he was about thirteen years old, but he said her philosophy, which he’s always followed, was: Always give everyone a chance. Always. And it doesn’t matter what race the person is, what their economic background is. None of it matters. Just talk to them. Don’t presume you know what a person is thinking or feeling. Just talk to them and find out for yourself.
“Over time, my attitude has changed about this issue. When I was little, it was about trying to help people who were black. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to the decision that I don’t want to take that particular approach anymore. I want to help everybody. So my foundation will be done with that in mind. It’s the Start Something program, a mentoring program. I don’t care who you are, what race you are, or what your ethnicity is. Don’t ask me to care. It’s about helping the next generation have a better future. And I will be a leader for everybody. Not just one group. I don’t want to limit myself, and I won’t be pigeonholed. I just feel like I can do more than be a leader strictly to blacks or strictly to Asians. I want to be a leader to everybody and that means globally. That means taking my foundation and going around the world and doing something to help anybody. I’m not going to limit myself to just one race, one religion, or one sex. Any effort I’m involved with is going to be about everybody.
“People want to pigeonhole me or move me in a certain direction that speaks to their agenda. And I’ve obviously been distanced in my takes in certain political situations because I don’t want to be pushed in their direction or be forced to take a particular view. I have my own views. I’m trying to do my best right now with what I have, growing my foundation and using it to be a springboard to the future. We have three million kids right now in the Start Something program. We’re trying to work within the next year and a half to go global with it.
“Another of the things that I’ve realized from traveling around the world and playing all over the place is: The only way to make a difference is to be informed. You have to be informed. You have to have knowledge. You have to have an education. You have to realize how important it is to be able to read and write, develop your mind, to be able to articulate your ideas and communicate with anyone.
“I’m not going to play golf forever. When I think I’m not good enough to play anymore and win, I’m gone. I’ve always told my friends that, and they all think I’m crazy. My dad laughs at me sometimes when I say that when I do quit, when I’m done, I don’t need to be remembered as a golfer. I want to be remembered for whatever social impact I’ve had around the world. Some people remember Arthur Ashe because he was a tennis player. But there are people all around the world who don’t know that he won Wimbledon but remember what kind of social impact he made, what kind of leader he was. That’s the kind of role I want to play and be remembered for playing. ‘Yeah,’ people might say, ‘he was a good golfer at one point. You know, he won some tournaments here and there. But what he did socially had a real impact.’ ”
When you’re a professional athlete, you don’t always see what’s going on around you because you have to have tunnel vision to compete with the best in the world at what you do. So I’ve wondered if Tiger knows how many black people play golf because of him, how the galleries have changed since he joined the tour, how much more inclusive the industry of golf has had to become. He forced all of that. The people who ran and enjoyed golf and had it as their own and kept it to themselves weren’t trying to run out and share it with everybody. In Europe and around the world, golf is a working-class game. But in America, it’s been pretty much the same country club sport for a hundred years. It’s radically different now. And as much as men like Charlie Sifford and Lee Elder and Lee Trevino and others broke down the first barriers of racism, the whole thing didn’t change radically until Tiger. I know I had never been to a college golf tournament until somebody told me, “Tiger Woods is in town.” And I said, “I’d like to see that.” And I went. But really, I had never watched golf in my life before. Now, I build my weekend around what time Tiger’s coming on TV. So I asked him if he’s aware of the impact he’s already had.
“When you’re in the hole it’s really hard to see out of it,” Tiger said. “You can be so close to something that you’re not aware of all that’s around. Your view is very one-dimensional. I don’t get the chance to see all of that. But what I have seen is that when I go to tournaments now, the galleries are much more diverse. We’re talking about more women. We’re talking about more minorities. Plus just a boatload of kids, which is very exciting to see. To see these kids just smiling away and thinking it’s just so cool to be out there watching golf. When I was growing up, it wasn’t a cool thing. Even when I was in high school, you were considered a wuss for playing golf. It wasn’t a cool thing to do. Everybody played basketball, football, baseball, or ran track — the core sports in America. If you’re back East, maybe you play hockey or lacrosse, but I was in L.A. There wasn’t even a thought to play golf for most people. That wasn’t a cool sport to play at all. But now, to see other kids playing golf, to hear them say ‘I’m not going to play football or basketball or run track or baseball; I’m going to play golf’ is just very different.”
Same thing with tennis. Look at what the Williams sisters are doing. I mean, that brought a whole new burst to that sport.
Excerpted from "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man," by Charles Barkley. Copyright ©2005 by Charles Barkley. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.